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Health ecologist

From bats to rats, voles and ticks, Jean-François Cosson has spent his life researching little-loved creatures. “I’m a steadfast defender of biodiversity,” says the scientist with a smile. “Disruptions in the environment create changes in the fauna, in turn causing problems for people. My research is focused on understanding the processes at work and offering solutions that can restore the balance through ecological means.” At times considered a “dreamer” early in his career, he has noticed that “these solutions are more easily accepted today”.

Jean-François Cosson, Research Director of the Joint Research Unit for Parasite and Fungus Immunology and Molecular Biology, INRA Jouy-en-Josas
By Emmanuelle Manck, translated by Teri Jones-Villeneuve
Updated on 02/09/2018
Published on 01/31/2018

Growing up in a small country village with a veterinarian for a father, Jean-François Cosson has had a passion for biology and exploration since childhood. “Every evening, I devoured books on animals from around the world and the writings of Darwin and La Condamine, whose adventurous spirit inspired me.” He studied to become a veterinarian – a natural choice after graduation – and quickly found a job. But his thirst for knowledge was not yet quenched. In 1987, he decided to go back to school for an ecology degree.  His studies took him to INRA’s Kourou station and the tropical forests of French Guiana, “a beautiful country and heaven for studying bats”. Rather than shying away from these oft-maligned animals, he devoted his thesis to studying their many species, “which play a major role in the Amazon basin ecosystem”.

Ecosystem balance, from the jungle to the countryside

When he returned in France in 1994, Cosson joined the INRA centre in Rennes where he would study the consequences of rat infestations on the flora and fauna of the islands of Brittany. He then went to INRA’s Montpellier centre to research the grassland damage caused by voles in Franche-Comté, where he was “happy to return to an agricultural environment that (he) grew up with”. Ten years of research finally proved fruitful. “We encouraged farmers to switch from ‘all chemical’ vole extermination treatments – which caused massive poisoning of wildlife – to a more ecological approach. Although they were more time consuming for farmers, new farming practices were finally adopted.” Cosson began studying the diseases transmitted by rodents to people and livestock, bringing him closer to his first vocation as a veterinarian. He approached the issue “from an angle of ecology and the health consequences of environmental imbalances”. He became a strong proponent of the emerging ‘One Health’ notion, which refers to the idea that animal, human and environmental health are all linked. “It connects everything I was always interested in during my research.”

‘One Health’ and citizen science

Research as a uniting force

Cosson became a research director in 2006 and was later named to the position of Deputy Head of INRA’s EFPA (1) Research Division in 2013. These additional responsibilities gave him a “different perspective on research”, and he took them on “enthusiastically” while maintaining his characteristic modest and mild-mannered ways. In 2016, at the Alfort national veterinary school’s Bipar (2) laboratory, he began investigating ticks and the diseases they transmit: “Because it was an issue that had become both delicate and worrisome, I wanted to unravel the conflicts between patients, doctors and ecologists and work together to find a lasting collective and ecological solution.” Convinced that citizen science was the way to go and with INRA’s full support, he joined forces with his colleagues to launch the project CiTIQUE. The idea was “to use new technologies to connect health and the environment as well as the viewpoints, fields of expertise and experiences of every stakeholder.” The project has already led to the mapping of tick bites in France and a one-of-a-kind ‘tick library’. Still driven by his innovative spirit and search for harmony, Cosson sums up his motto with a quote by Baudelaire: “The imagination is the most scientific of the faculties”!

(1) INRA’s Department for Forest, Grassland and Freshwater Ecology

(2) Joint Research Unit for Parasite and Fungus Immunology and Molecular Biology, INRA-Alfort national veterinary school-ANSES

Mini-CV

  • 53 years old, married, two daughters
  • 205 scientific publications as of 01/10/2017
  • 2016: Research Director of the Joint Research Unit for Parasite and Fungus Immunology and Molecular Biology, Alfort national veterinary school
  • 2013–15: Deputy Head of INRA’s EFPA Research Division (Department for Forest, Grassland and Freshwater Ecology)
  • 2006: Research Director at the Centre for Biology and Population Management, INRA Montpellier
  • 1994–2005: Research scientist at the Wildlife Behaviour and Ecology Research Unit, INRA Rennes; Genome and Populations Laboratory, University Montpellier II
  • 1994: PhD thesis: Dynamique de populations et dispersion d’une chauve-souris frugivore en Guyane française (Population dynamics and dispersion of a frugivorous bat in French Guiana).
  • 1991: Contractual scientific assistant at INRA, Kourou station, French Guiana
  • 1987–88: Bachelor’s degree in Basic and Applied Environmental Toxicology
  • 1986: Degree in Veterinary Medicine